The car arrived outside our house precisely on time and soon we were on our way to join Saga Pearl II on her Baltic Cruise. The door-to-door service is one of the many benefits of cruising with Saga.
Others include optional travel insurance, free internet access, drinks with lunch and dinner and no added tips or gratuities. Despite this, or maybe because of it, the crew, from the Captain downwards, were unfailingly hospitable and helpful, adding to the warm and friendly atmosphere on board. This was underlined by the comfortable cabin with great food and service.
The main destination for the cruise was St Petersburg, Russia’s cultural capital. As we approached, the rows of rusting hulls being broken for scrap just didn’t prepare me for the dazzling experience that was to come.
St Petersburg is often likened to Venice and although some of the canals have now been turned into roads it still has 42 islands and 342 bridges over the canals and rivers that remain. It has more than three hundred museums and, before the revolution, had around one thousand palaces.
The best known is the huge Winter Palace which sits on the south bank of the Neva River. The original wooden palace, built for Peter the Great, was eventually replaced by the current building, the design of which was approved by Empress Elizabeth in 1754. It is simply spectacular.
The Winter Palace is home to the world-famous Hermitage museum. This amazing collection of works of art numbers around three million items, but even with five other buildings now dedicated to its display, only around 15% of the collection can be seen at any one time.
Top of my priority list, however, was a visit to the Fabergé museum. This priceless private collection, belonging to Viktor Vekselberg, opened in 2013 and is the world’s largest collection of works by Carl Fabergé.
It’s housed in the Shuvalov Palace, restored specifically for this purpose, and contains four thousand stunning works of art, including nine Imperial Easter Eggs. Some, like the ruby Hen Egg, open to reveal bejewelled miniatures. It’s Kinder Surprise on steroids!
The items are all beautifully displayed in glass cases and so entrancing are they that visitors seemed to ignore the rooms of the Palace itself which, in any other situation, would have drawn gasps of admiration.
I also visited the Church of the Spilled Blood, constructed to commemorate the assassination of Alexander II. Its colourful onion-shaped domes are matched by an incredible interior that initially appears to be painted and gilded but is in fact made up of nearly eighty-five thousand square feet of mosaic tiles.
The performing arts flourish here and the Mariinsky Theatre, dating back to 1860, is home to the Ballet, Opera and Orchestral companies. It is where Swan Lake was first performed in 1895. Nearby is the Stroganov Palace, home to the Counts Stroganov. Now, if this name sounds vaguely familiar, then you’re right. The Stroganov family were originally rich peasants who never lost track of their roots. They would regularly feed the local poor of St Petersburg with a form of beef stew that included mustard and sour cream. Yes, that’s how Beef Stroganov started life.
There’s so much to see in St Petersburg but I felt that having come so far I should explore a little further. Thirty miles away and on the coast of the Gulf of Finland is the Palace of Peterhof. It may be in the suburbs of St Petersburg but it is no less glamorous and glitzy.
Peter the Great was inspired by the palace of Versailles to build an out-of-town palace with ornamental grounds and fountains. However, much of what visitors now see was as a result of his daughter Elizabeth’s re-design, for whom this was a favourite place. If the word ‘bling’ had been around in those days, the many gilded and shimmering fountains would be a classic example; it makes Versailles look a little dowdy.
Back on board that night the chef got into the spirit of things with a dinner menu that included Caviar with Blinis, Russian Dumplings, Borscht, Chicken Kiev and of course Beef Stroganoff. For those who could manage a pudding, naturally there was Pavlova.
With food like that it’s just as well there’s a car to take you back home at the end of the cruise.
Visitors by ship are allowed seventy-two hours visa-free entry but excursions must be booked either with the ship or online with an approved company, otherwise visas are required. Fourteen nights aboard Saga Pearl II departing Dover on 22nd May 2018 costs from £2,457pp. This includes transport to and from Dover, all meals, drinks with meals, gratuities, WiFi and optional travel insurance. The ship calls at Gdansk, Tallinn, St Petersburg (2 days), Kotka, Visby, Karlskrona and Kiel. Call 0800 50 50 30 or visit www.saga.co.uk/cruises.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Saga Cruises.